By Joan Biskupic
BOSTON – In recent months, Harvard University has come under attack in court for allegedly limiting the number of Asian-American students it admits. A Reuters examination reveals how the lawsuit brought in their name arose from a broader goal: upending a nearly 40-year-old Supreme Court decision that has primarily helped blacks and Hispanics.
A civil rights group representing African American and other minority students has recently filed papers seeking to enter the case, arguing they are the “real targets.” They say that if the lawsuit succeeds, the consequences for blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans would be “catastrophic,” and they cannot rely on Harvard to represent their interests.
The lawsuit was not initiated by Asian Americans. It names none in its 120 pages.
Rather, it was started by a conservative advocate, Edward Blum, who over the years has enlisted white plaintiffs to challenge race-based policies. He developed the case that two years ago led to a Supreme Court decision narrowing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. http://reut.rs/1EYqyT4 Last week the justices accepted another voting-related case he started, one that could shift voting power from urban, Hispanic districts to rural, whiter areas in Texas.
Blum launched the Harvard case after a prior high-profile effort to overturn university racial preferences foundered. For the earlier case, he had encouraged the daughter of a friend, Abigail Fisher, to sue the University of Texas for allegedly discriminating against her under a diversity policy that favored blacks and Hispanics with lower scores. The Supreme Court rejected the argument in 2013, although it sent the case back for further hearings, and a new appeal is pending at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even some advocates for Asian Americans agree with the claim of the civil rights group that Blum is going to wind up hurting blacks and Hispanics. Betty Hung, a spokeswoman for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a civil rights group that contends race-conscious policies have broadly benefited its constituents, says Blum is using Asian Americans “for another misguided attack on affirmative action.”
Responding to this criticism, Blum said in an interview with Reuters that he is in favor of race-blind admissions and is not trying to exclude any specific group. “Are we using a group to further an agenda? The agenda for this organization and, I believe, the sentiment and will of the American people, is to eliminate the use of racial classifications in admissions.” He added, “I proudly stand by any group that has been denied a place at a university because of skin color.”
Blum also dismissed the idea that blacks and Hispanics would necessarily suffer. In making admissions decisions, schools could instead rely on “economic disadvantage, life experiences, all kinds of factors that could be used and should be used, and will help blacks and Latinos,” he said.
The case against Harvard, filed last November in Boston federal court, argues that the university violates civil rights law by holding Asian Americans to a higher standard to restrict their numbers. The complaint cites studies showing Asian Americans have better academic records than members of other ethnic groups but are disproportionately rejected for admission to elite schools.
Harvard said it does not cap Asian American admissions but looks at each applicant “holistically.” In a public statement in May, Harvard general counsel Robert Iuliano said that weighing many characteristics is essential to Harvard’s academic mission and that its approach is consistent with federal law.
Admissions data show that the percentage of Asian American students admitted to Harvard for this year’s entering undergraduate class rose to 21 percent, compared with 17.6 percent a decade ago. Asian Americans number 14.7 million in the U.S., or 4.8 percent of the population, according to the 2010 Census.
The percentage of blacks admitted to Harvard also rose compared with the class that entered in 2006, to 12.1 percent compared with 10.5 percent, as did the percentage of Latinos, by a somewhat wider margin. The gains for these groups appear to have come at the expense of whites, whose percentage in the admitted classes shrank to about 51 percent from about 61 percent.
Blum’s case is still at an early, pre-trial stage. Were it to proceed through appeals courts, it could ultimately be used to overturn the landmark 1978 Supreme Court case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which forbade quotas but permitted colleges to use race as one criterion among many to obtain a diverse class.
The practice of giving an extra boost to historically disadvantaged minority groups, known as affirmative action, has come under withering criticism by conservatives. It has so far withstood challenges at the Supreme Court, but by close votes.
A NEW PLAINTIFF
Blum’s newly created plaintiff for the Asian American case is called Students for Fair Admissions. Blum said it is a “coalition of prospective applicants and applicants to higher education institutions who were denied admission” to universities including Harvard. The only student it describes is an unnamed Chinese American who, the suit alleges, was ranked first out of 460 students in high school, achieved a perfect score on the ACT college-admissions exam and was rejected for admission by Harvard in 2014.